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Privacy concerns over a bill allowing police to obtain cell phone location without a warrant

Mar 4, 2015

Smart phone.
Credit Johan Larsson / Creative Commons http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

The bill, if passed, would require cell phone carriers in Michigan to release location information to police in the event of an emergency.

In short, according to this House Fiscal Agency analysis, the bill does this:

- Require a wireless carrier to provide location information on a wireless device to a law enforcement officer upon request in certain emergency conditions.

- Provide civil and criminal immunity to a wireless carrier that responds to the request for device location information.

- Make it a misdemeanor offense for a law enforcement officer to use the new act to obtain device location information for personal use or gain.

The bill seemed good to go in the State House, but there has been some pushback from several of the state representatives.

MLive's Capitol reporter Jonathon Oosting says late last week, freshmen lawmakers Todd Courser, R-Lapeer, and Cindy Gamrat, R-Allegan, held up the legislation based on some privacy concerns.

“I think that is kind of a logical concern with a bill like this, because it would allow police to obtain information without a warrant,” said Oosting.

Courser and Gamrat are looking at amendments that would address these privacy concerns. One would require police to tell somebody if their cell phone location information had been disclosed within 48 hours. Another would require that a warrant be obtained first.

“If there’s one issue that’s going to hold up passage, it could be that warrant issue because the whole point of the bill is to be able to do this without a warrant,” said Oosting.

The ACLU has weighed in as well. The ACLU supports an amendment that would outline clear punishment for people who access the information without a clear emergency.

The bill’s sponsor makes it clear that the information obtained from the phone would only be GPS coordinates. Police would not be allowed to see text messages or other information.

Other states have passed similar legislation known as “Kelsey Smith Laws.” More background from the House Fiscal Agency:

Several other states have adopted such "Kelsey Smith Laws," named for a Missouri case where a young woman from Missouri was murdered after being abducted from a store parking lot.  After multiple requests over several days, her cell phone carrier eventually released information indicating the current location of her phone.  Her body was located one hour after the release of the information.